Soccer

Wednesday 20 August 2014

No end of an era but Barca must address defensive frailties

Pete Jenson

Published 25/04/2013 | 04:00

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Lionel Messi and Xavi Hernandez cut forlorn figures during Barcelona's mauling by Bayern Munich

Spanish television cut straight to an episode of 'Masterchef' on Tuesday night as soon as the final whistle was blown on Barcelona's four-goal defeat to Bayern Munich.

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Post-match analysis is not big in Spain, and how Real Madrid fans cursed the lack of any opportunity to pick apart their rivals' worst showing in recent memory.

There was no chance to see the Bayern goals again from a fresh angle or a slowed-down sequence of an already slowed-down Leo Messi. The following day's Madrid papers made up for it, with 'The End of an Era' the telling headline.

To bring down the curtain on a team whose genial talisman is 25 and who are about to win the league title seemed more like wishful thinking from their rivals than a realistic reading of the football landscape. If Real are beaten in Saturday's Madrid derby then a Barcelona win the same night will mean they are crowned champions.

Tito Vilanova, in a season when a recurrence of a tumour on a saliva gland sidelined him for two months, will have won the title and made it to the Champions League and Spanish Cup semi-finals in his first season. Vilanova will give his first press conference since coming back from chemotherapy. He had been expected to hand over his duties to assistant Jaime Roura for the rest of the season but will now speak ahead of the trip to Bilbao next week.

Messi's peculiar no-show in the Allianz Arena will top the agenda. No one fared worse in the match statistics. He ran 7km during the game, 2km down on his Champions League average. He is not injured, but neither does he seem fit.

Maybe, after four years of playing every game under Pep Guardiola, the stop-start nature of his season brought on by a hamstring tweak and the attempt to protect him from it recurring have upset his impeccable rhythm.

Just as significant in the defeat were Barcelona's shortcomings at the back; defensive problems that have long since threatened to cause embarrassment in a big game.

At the start of the season the club tried and failed to sign first Thiago Silva and then Javi Martinez. Under the old regime, with the flamboyant president Joan Laporta in charge, Silva's wage demands would have been met. But current president Sandro Rosell sees a sizeable annual reduction in the club's debt as another trophy.

Silva wanted striker's wages and when that meant he moved to Paris Saint-Germain instead, and Barcelona decided they could not meet Athletic Bilbao's €40m buyout clause for Martinez, Barca were left pretending they had wanted Alex Song all along. The man they paid Arsenal €20m for watched from the bench this week. This summer the signing of a centre-back will be a priority.

Santos forward Neymar's arrival will be brought forward a season. It remains to be seen whether another physically unimposing player is quite what this Barcelona team need but with a €10m deposit paid, there seems no going back on Rosell's grand plan.

Barcelona will also need to trim their squad, with numbers set to swell to 35. Evolution not revolution was the watchword yesterday. That and the idea that a team whose average age is 27 is far from finished yet. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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